The Unlikely Guide
By Renee Alston
Here is a story about a city girl gone wild! At least my family thought so. One morning about two years ago I received a call from my good friend Bryan Schroeder from the Georgia Conservancy. He asked if I could get off from work for about five days? He said that he needed my help, but that it would be very rewarding and that I would get a weeklong vacation at one of the most beautiful places in Georgia!
Of course, that piqued my interest. What he didn’t tell me right off is that on this great vacation I would be cutting trails, cleaning the beach and sleeping outside with wild animals.
Well, after it was all said and done I agreed to accompany five young woman from Spelman College down to Cumberland island for a spring-break service trip. This was the start of a great adventure. Of course, Bryan is the master packer and planner of trips for the Conservancy, and he had us all ready to go: food, tents and all the necessary items needed for our great adventure.
We had a couple of meetings prior to the trip to get acquainted, but nothing that prepared us for what was to come. This was a lesson in trust and adaptability. Now mind you, I had only “glamped” (glamorous camping) two times in my life; sixth-grade Girl Scout trips don’t really count. The other two occasions were on trips with my Georgia Conservancy mates. On those I had assistance pitching my tent and food was prepared for the team. Well, this time was different. This time I was the adult leader; thank God for my wonderful girls.
The morning of the trip I woke up and wanted to change my mind but of course couldn’t. I packed my nerve and said a good prayer. Meeting point was the Georgia Conservancy’s parking lot in Atlanta; the girls were there and ready to roll out. It was truly a cast of characters. Our group ranged in personality and talent. Some had camped before and some had not. Among the girls there was one true outdoorswoman who was studying environmental education and three foreign students. We started out slow, meeting that morning and getting things situated. Loaded up and ready to go, we set off to Cumberland island.
The trip down begat great conversation and much talk about what to expect. Of course we all had our versions of what would take place and how to make it all work. But nothing could have prepared us for our journey on the island and our new and lasting friendships. We got there and unloaded the van so that we could catch the ferry over to the island. Laughing all the while about what to expect and declaring that once we were on the island that was it: no chickening out. That warning was mostly for me. We had an enjoyable ride over as we watched for dolphins following the ferry. It was still a bit unbelievable — me leading an outdoor group for a week.
Getting to the island, we were met by an island ranger named Julie. We unloaded our packs, food and supplies and put them onto the van before we were driven to our campsite. There was another group there from New England. I must say that this was my first time seeing and being a part of something like this: six African-American females camping out on an island and volunteering to do this. Now don’t get me wrong: I now know there are many other African-Americans who camp, hike and do other outdoor activities, but I can say that among my peer group, it would be a rarity. I am typically in high heels and dressed for the office and happy hour.
We unloaded the van, picked out our campsite and set up. We were given our tasks and told about timelines and how to get help if needed. The girls were raring to go. We pitched our tents and started a fire to gear up to cook dinner. Well, let me say that I had never experienced anything like this and wasn’t sure I was ready for it. I couldn’t imagine cooking at a campsite and loving it (it’s nothing like the family barbecue). The girls helped me prep while they laughed at me about not being able to light the stove and basically cooking in the dark. We probably ate a little extra protein, if you know what I mean! That was just the first evening. The days ahead were filled with real work. We cut trails (some that were mapped out and others we mapped out by mistake) picked up branches and cleaned the trails. We walked and cleaned the beach, along the way finding new ways to crack jokes on each other.
I was able to see the island in a whole new light; this was up close and personal. I had always wanted to really explore the island but this gave me a perspective that I may have never gotten had I not volunteered for this service week. Each day we hustled to make it back in time to cook before dark and to find firewood to keep us warm in the evenings.
We totally got into this project. We all worked hard and laughed even harder in the evenings. One of the days spent cleaning the beach brought one of my most memorable images of the trip. The sights were incredible. Walking along this beautiful beach as we picked up plastic bottles, shoes and other washed-up items from the dunes, we were captivated with the view of the ocean and how we were so privileged to be on the beach basically alone. We broke for lunch and sat on a sandbar and ate. It was peaceful, beautiful and entertaining. As we sat, we watched nature at its best. Seeing the wild horses walk along the sand dunes was a magical moment for me. I had heard of the beauty of Cumberland Island, but had never seen it up close and personal, like this. This was truly one of the best things that I could have ever done for myself and those young ladies.
The trip to Cumberland taught me many things about myself that had been long buried. First, I do have the courage to venture outside of my comfort zone. Second, some of the most relaxing times consist of time outdoors. I really thought that I would be lost without my creature comforts, emails, business calls and such: not so. One of the nights was cold and rainy. As I laid there listening to the rain I started fumbling with my phone, looking at pictures I had taken during the trip. I then discovered I had a signal. Oh, boy! I started sharing photos and updating Facebook about my adventure. Much to my surprise, a conversation started with my older sister and a couple of friends. They asked if I was crazy and what was I doing out in the wilderness?
These conversations gave me an opportunity to share my experience with people who may have never considered camping or even venturing into the outdoors. This was important to me on so many levels. While it was entertaining, it was also a chance to invite friends and family to get involved and to learn more about the adventures I had been having.
At the end of my adventure, I discovered that this trip gave me a priceless experience. An experience that I was able to share with five incredible young women who I will forever call my friends. They taught me to just let go and laugh again, to find beauty in the simplest things and to relax. I am grateful to my friend for trusting me to lead this trip. I hope that you will be encouraged to get out and get involved even more. If I can do it, you can, too.
- Renee Alston is a development officer for the Georgia Conservancy — and one of its volunteers.
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